There has been a lot of discussion over the past years about libraries facing an identity crisis. From budget cuts, technology advances to changing needs of the community, libraries are in a transformative state that some see as an identity crisis. To find out more about the context in which libraries may be facing an identity crisis, we’ve had a chat with Pamela Benjamin, TRAILS Coordinator at Montana State University Library. Check out her thoughts below!
Why an Identity Crisis?
When thinking about the collective identity crises librarians have been enduring, no matter how you spin it, from Mogens Vestergaard’s shifting from a transactional to relational library or Jan Holmquist’s need for meaningful face-to-face interactions, we’re all saying the same thing – it’s about the people. We are defined by the people and people’s needs are changing! This is not a shocking revelation and it seems obvious to all.
Yet, it seems to get mired among the four predominant themes that run throughout the library world: technology, space, information/content and people. We can play with the first three, but the last one is our core.
Final Frontiers – Technology & Space?
Get on the high-speed, bullet train or get left behind. The digital divide is real and I agree with Liz McGettigan when she says that libraries should be one-stop destinations for learning all things digital. However, it does not need to be the main focus unless it is a good fit for that library’s community. Some places may have the right combination of demographics and interest so that the latest tech wonders are worth the investment. On the other side of the digital divide track, some users will benefit most from introductory training on the most basic of tech products.
Then there is the perfect union of technology and space usage – makerspaces. There are some great programs going on that tie in local industry and job skills or creativity and science. In many cases, makerspaces may be promoting science but the appeal is for an already tech-savvy crowd who have other options.
There are other significant uses for library space involving collaborative functions or community hub facilitation. These are all wonderful and spot on as they highlight that we make spaces fit people, not the other way around.
A Smile & Information
It may be agreed that technology and space are mercurial, but I can hear you say – “How can you state that information is anything less than core to our profession?”
Perhaps it is controversial to say that information, especially accurate information, is not at the heart of librarianship. Nonetheless, there was some famous research in 1995 (and others) that looked at the patron’s perspective (which is what we really care about, right?) related to the accuracy of the information provided by reference librarians. Surprisingly, the study found that a reference experience is actually deemed successful not in accordance to accuracy, but rather the librarian’s enthusiasm, friendliness, and interest.
Trust & Empathy
Okay, so where does all the above leave us? Back to people. You say, “We already put people first and always have.” True – to an extent. Maybe, however, it’s time we move out of our collective comfort zones and change how we put users first while capitalizing on our strengths.
Librarians are trusted. More than government officials, more than journalists, more than businesses, and more than academics. We aren’t there to get votes, sway opinions, sell something, or grade papers. Librarians try to provide information in a neutral, non-judgmental way purely for the reward of assisting someone. This is key. What we see as doing our job, users perceive as help for no gain. Help for no gain can be seen as empathy. We do what we do because we love people, love knowledge, and want to bring them together. No matter how things change, people will always want, make that need, to trust someone and feel cared about.
Public Libraries – how can libraries transform?
The 5th Branch
Some library leaders have gone as far as to suggest that libraries become the fifth branch of government. I understand Sten Bording Andersen’s point that we have a role to play, but it should be in an advisory capacity rather than a governing one. Providing advice goes beyond supplying information, but it is not out of the bounds of reason. Yet this is pushing the envelope for librarians.
We’re used to the role of information gatekeeper, not information concierge. It is a form of power, but I believe it would be well placed in librarians as their ethics and love of truth would keep things in check.